There's a twenty of us in the Captain's office, brainstorming new tricks, slick formations for the show. "Attendance is down," the Captain says and we know what's coming. Nervous talk about Medina's fiery crash at the Phoenix fairgrounds last July. His plane peeled off the tightest V formation ever flown and headed straight for the lowest, nearest mountain. They said the crowd's gasp near scorched the grass on the landing field. His crash made page one in every paper but the New York Times. My girlfriend tucked the clippings into the back of the album she keeps on me.
"You guys need to really get it on," the Captain says, his chin deep in Air Force medals.
"Hell, we get any tighter," Gates says, "our wings'll be kissing pilot's asses just before we all explode." He is folding paper airplanes that are tight with angry creases and aerodynamic precision. Gates and me, we sometimes sit over a beer and talk about getting out, maybe into commuter runs or civilian cargo. We joke about flying real slow to Peoria or Peru.
"Can't Design give us multi-colored exhaust, Walt Disney colors?" Banko says. And Hennesey, "Let's fly in Springsteen." "Or hire all those out-of-work Russian astronauts," Mendez says. The rest of us chime in saying get the president to sing the Star Spangled Banner, have some terrorist hijack a plane, or hey, we could scramble in a snow storm—if anyone would come.
Gates wings a paper plane at each of us, and finally, after more dumb, desperate suggestions we wind down.
"Truth is," the Captain says, "I got my orders yesterday. We gotta do what we gotta do." He squares his shoulders as he says this and slaps his cap upside down on his desk, settling everything.
Soon, it's bristling with twenty folded, crisp white slips.
We jostle into line like last time. Gates is first to take a slip. In slow motion, he unfolds it and takes a look, then protocol, he holds it up for all to see. Nodding, he refolds it fast and better, to make an unmarked plane winging wild with relief and joy. One by one we shuffle forward. Banko waves his slip under the Captain's nose, saying, there ought to be 21 slips in the pot. The only time he could get away with such insubordination. Halfway through, its my turn. I take a slip and slide my thumb in to undo the fold.
I hold it up to show the buck stopped here.
With a shrug I tell Gates everything: that it's too late for me to get out now, that he has to do Peoria for both of us. Because, now, in the few weeks left before we fly El Paso, now it's just me competing with Medina, me thinking up my own last, best show.
This past year Pamela Painter has had stories in Agni, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Ploughshares, and River Styx, and in 2000 won Agni's John Cheever Award for Fiction.